It was a remarkably ungainly hack for a player of such style, the sort of foul seemingly more suited to the Sunday league than the Premier League. It sent Jean-Philippe Mateta, a big lump of a centre-forward, flying. Phil Foden had conceded a penalty, Manchester City gave up a two-goal lead and they headed off to the Club World Cup with their grip on the Premier League trophy slipping.
They came back from Saudi Arabia where Foden, all spritely brilliance, was arguably the best player on the pitch in the final; which, if the calibre of the opposition can be questioned, has a particular prestige of its own. He made amends on his return to domestic duty. Losing 1-0 at Everton, Foden delivered a leveller of uncanny skill, a performance to reshape a match; perhaps a title race, given City’s stumbles earlier in November and December.
There were a hat-trick of chances, a trio of examples of the range of his talents: the 20-yard shot that arrowed past his England teammate Jordan Pickford. “Maybe because I hit it so quick, I might have caught him by surprise,” Foden reflected. There was the run to the near post, showing his capacity to ghost into space, when he almost diverted Julian Alvarez’s cross in. There was the ferocious hit that rattled the woodwork. “Oh my god, yeah, I hit it so well and it was so close,” said Foden, as though taken aback by his own ability.
They are gifts that the champions have come to need. Take Erling Haaland, Kevin de Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez out of a City side, for various reasons, and there is less class, less stardust, fewer scorers, fewer creators. It was a sign of the galaxy of talent they possessed that Foden was a stranger to the starting 11 for many of last season’s defining games.
Now he feels the talisman. By their own standards, this is a relatively prosaic City team. Pep Guardiola once described Matheus Nunes as one of the world’s best players, but there is ever less evidence to support that claim. Alvarez has won everything there is but the underlying question of precisely how good he is remains unanswered. Jack Grealish is the £100m man and particularly marketable but, despite scoring in his previous three league games, rarely actually decisive.
Foden is. “With the absence of Erling, we don’t have many players with a real sense of goal and that is so important for us how he is playing,” Guardiola said. “Phil Foden in the end just took the ball and put it in the net.” With nine goals by the halfway stage, this could be his most prolific campaign, but his influence has extended beyond that. An equaliser at Everton illustrated Foden’s capacity to assume responsibility, but it was not the first time: should City retain their title, Foden’s man-of-the-match performance against Newcastle in August will assume a greater significance.
It was City’s first league game after De Bruyne was injured. Foden has helped fill a void. “He can play winger, striker, dropping [deeper], he can play in positions as an attacking midfielder,” Guardiola said. That versatility may soon count against Foden. Haaland will be out for a while but De Bruyne could return against Sheffield United on Saturday or, more likely, versus Huddersfield the following week. Each has a centrality, while Alvarez cannot adopt a wider role.
Foden can, but it is not his preference. “You know how much I like playing in the middle and long may that continue,” he said at Goodison Park. Yet, along with De Bruyne, he is the most compelling option as a central attacking midfielder or a No 10. He has attributes Alvarez lacks. He can dance and dart into gaps everywhere. The one place where City did not want their odd-job man to pop up was in his own box against Palace.
“The game against Crystal Palace he didn’t help us to win but, in the next games against Fluminense and today he learns,” Guardiola said. “The last few minutes he did completely different to Crystal Palace.”
Against Fluminense, he scored in the Club World Cup final. It left Foden with 16 trophies for his hometown club at the age of 23, with no more worlds left for him to conquer.
“We forget sometimes how young is Phil,” said Guardiola. Given everything Foden has accomplished so far, it would be an exaggeration to brand this a breakthrough season, but it feels as though he has never been as pivotal to City. He has not always had to be a difference-maker; not when so many others were able to assume that role. “He has a lot of things to improve to be an incredible top-class player for many, many years.” It was a perfectionist speaking, but Foden can look the class act in this City side now.
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